American officials charged that the Mexican government is violating an 18-year-old treaty by letting a trio of Baja AM stations ramp up their power by as much as 80 times their previous levels, knocking out huge blocks of the listening audience for ABC/Disney stations in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Underscoring their concerns, the U.S. has dispatched an ambassador and an FCC commissioner to extinguish the kind of fire usually put out by low-level technocrats. So far, however, the U.S. government is disappointed by the Mexican response.
The signals of the three stations, located in the cities of Tijuana, Tecate and Ensenada, are so strong that listeners to a dozen other AMs in the U.S. West and Midwest are also bothered by Spanish-language programming in the background. Stations as far away as WBBM Chicago are affected. In all, Disney officials estimate that 50 million Americans are suffering interference because of the Mexican power boost.
But broadcasters’ worries go way beyond the problems of a dozen AM stations. Mexico’s unprecedented reluctance to rein in the offending stations has Americans questioning whether our southern neighbor will cooperate when the time comes to work out a raft of interference problems likely to pop up as TV stations from both countries switch to all-digital operation.
“This is important not just because of the current situation but for how well we will be able to work with Mexico going forward,” says David Gross, U.S. ambassador at-large for international communications. “Traditionally we’ve worked very well with the Mexicans.”
Gross and FCC Commissioner Michael Copps jetted to Mexico City on April 16 to meet with Geronimo Guttierrez, under secretary for North American Affairs, and Jorge Alvarez Hoth, under secretary for communications. They weren't there to negotiate, but to clearly state that Mexico was in the wrong. To further emphasize the U.S. frustration, Secretary of State Colin Powell has twice written to Mexican Secretary of Foreign Relations Luis Ernesto Derbez insisting that the Mexican government solve the problem.
Mexican officials have offered up a plan to tweak signals on both sides of the border, but their reluctance to simply make the three stations power down has U.S. officials stumped.
Last fall Mexican officials permitted the stations, located just south of the California border, to switch to new channels and ramp up their power radically, all without coordinating the switch with U.S. regulators as required by a 1986 treaty.
Mexican officials deny dragging their feet and say the FCC is now reviewing a draft of Mexico’s plan for settling the problem, which calls for tweaking signals of both the Mexican and U.S. stations. “We’re working hard to find a solution acceptable on both sides of the border,” says Miguel Monte Ruvieo, spokesman for the Mexican embassy.
But there’s no need for a complicated negotiation because the Mexican stations are obligated to cut back their power, Gross counters. “The problem is of Mexican creation and they have the tools to solve it.”